May 27-30, 2015
For a decade now, Nutshell has been an important engine in promoting Norwegian jazz talent abroad. This year, Nutshell's four-day program presented nine acts of quite diverse stripes to an audience of festival directors, radio programmers, booking agents and journalists from fifteen European countries.
For bands who impress, Nutshell potentially offers a direct route to the stages of jazz festivals and clubs the length and breadth of Europe. In addition, international media spreads the word far and wideand it's hardly a secret by nowthat Norwegian jazz is something to get excited about.
Nutshell takes place under the wing of Nattjazz, one of Norway's oldest jazz festivals, which served up a whole lot more music besides, enabling the international delegates to feast their ears on a score or so of Norwegian bands.
There's a certain poetic symmetry in the fact that Nattjazz should be held in a former sardine factory. Bergen was built on fish, in particular cod, which was first exported from the city in the twelfth century. Fish is still a major export industry in Norway, and so too is jazz.
For a country with a population of just over five million, Norway punches well above its weight when it comes to jazz. It's not just the plethora of jazz festivals that the country sustains but the successful exportation of its numerous groups that in fairly recent times has positioned Norway as the European powerhouse of modern jazz.
It's rare indeed these days, at European jazz festivals of any size, not to encounter at least one Norwegian band on the program. Nutshell, in the historic city of Bergen, has played an increasingly significant role in building the international brand that is Norwegian jazz.
The Old Norse name for Bergen, Bjǫrgvin
means 'the meadow among the mountains,' an appropriate appellation for this picturesque city situated on the west coast of Norway. Coming in by plane, the bird's-eye view of the mountains and fjord-peppered Bergen peninsula is as welcoming a vista as you can imagine. Little wonder then, given its idyllic setting and the fish jumping into the nets, that a city was founded here a thousand years ago.
Not quite as old, but firmly established nevertheless is Nattjazz, which was celebrating its 43rd edition. Nutshellformerly known as Jazz Norway in a Nutshellis a mere stripling at ten years of age and it was Nutshell that kicked off the music with two showcase bands of contrasting styles. Day One Showcases Ola Kvernberg, Kirsti Huke, Erik Nylander
The first showcases were held in the old world opulence of the Bergen Chamber of Commerce. Here, in times past, cigar-chomping traders reclined in armchairs and talked fish. The armchairsand sea-themed paintings the size of billiards tablesremained unchanged from times past, though the traders gathered here were dealing not in fish, but jazz.
Playing its first concert as a trio, fiddler Ola Kvernberg
, vocalist Kirsti Huke and drummer Erik Nylander
's set began with a gently hypnotic version of Nick Drake's "Riverman"; Kvernberg's looped ostinato formed the rhythmic backbone, accompanied by Nylander's brushes, while Huke captured the plaintive quality of the original tune. As alluring as Huke's vocals were, the tune only really sparked into life with Kvernberg's lilting solo.
Likewise on Tom Waits' "Lonely" Huke followed the original blueprint fairly closely, with Kvernberg's folksy balladry providing the highlight. Pizzicato fiddle, melancholy vocals and bobbing mallets fused on Abba's "The Day before You Came," which flowed seamlessly into an atmospheric interpretation of Nick Cave's "Into My Arms." On the latter, drone and layered vocals forged ethereal harmonies before gently plucked strings and mallets groove accompanied Huke's captivating lead.
After nearly fifteen years playing on each other's projects there was an obvious empathy in the trio's play, but whether such familiar material will entice Europe's jazz festivals and club owners remains to be seen. With such talented musicians more provocative original material might have produced more stimulating rewards but there was no escaping the beauty in the trio's simple chemistry. Equinox
The quintet Equinox was also playing its first gig together. In contrast to the stripped-down lyricism of Kvernberg, Huke and Nylander that had preceded it, Equinox served up more groove-based fare, with, at times, a coruscating energy fuelled by bassist Magne Thormodsaeter and the twin-drums engine of Ivar Thormodsaether and Hakon Mjaset Johansen. Saxophonist Kjetil Møster
and guitarist Thomas T. Dahl unleashed fiery solos of a free-jazz disposition.